As their seemingly endless walk wears on, the mood of the group begins to sour. Water squishes inside boots with every step. Elaine shivers in her soaked robes, hugging herself tight against the damp chill. Mathos has lapsed into a rare silence, and even his glowing orb of light floating along beside the group seems to have faded and lost some of its luster. Jake mutters the name of Harriet Swordsteel under his breath, along with various combinations of bitter curse words. Even normally cheerful Hamfrd, leading the Companions along the water’s edge, has let loose more than one deep, rumbling sigh.
So the group is slow to react when the first significant change in their environment is revealed by the dull light of the orb. When Hamfrd finally notices, the big man’s laugh is full of released tension. “Friends!” he calls out.
They’ve reached the far end of the lake.
Ahead, the edge of the water curves away into the gloom and shadow off to their right. But where it begins to curve, the narrow walkway on which they presently tread spreads out into a flat stone shelf that extends away from the water’s edge into darkness.
“J-Jake?” Wet and cold, Elaine’s teeth chatter. “D-did you throw something else in the w-water?”
The swordarm glances over his shoulder, confused. “Just now? Nothing. Why?”
“I was afraid you were going to s-say that,” says the cleric. She points at the lake. “Look!”
Fresh ripples approach towards the ledge where the five companions now pause. The mini waves slosh against the stone at their feet. Farther out in the water, several bubbles appear on the surface and pop. A dark shape rises briefly from the water, splashes forward and disappears again beneath the black surface. More ripples spread from the spot, stretching out to become the wake of something large moving under the black water.
More bubbles appear.
The water starts to churn, the surface growing suddenly choppy and wild, bubbling and foaming.
From the narrow walkway, Scarlet growls, “This can’t be good.” Back pressed against the damp rock wall, she draws her knives.
At her side, Elaine stares. “What is that?”
“I don’t think we want to stick around to find out,” Jake says.
“Speak for yourself,” says Mathos. The mage is urging his glowing orb close to the site of the disturbed water. “I, for one, would like to see what we’re dealing with. Imagine, some giant creature living down here in the depths for who knows how long.” He grins at Jake, missing or ignoring the swordarm’s horrified look in his excitement. “It’s fascinating. We might be the first people to ever set eyes on it. Whatever it is.” He puts a hand to his chin, considering.
“Friends,” calls Hamfrd. “It’s not far.” He’s pointing with his mace towards the flat shelf where the floor grows wide and the lake ends. “We can make it, let’s go.” The big man hurries forward.
Mathos remains transfixed by the bubbling water. “What would a creature that has spent its entire life down here in the dark look like? What would it eat?”
“Probably us, if you don’t get moving,” says Jake, pushing the mage after Hamfrd.
At that moment, the surface of the water explodes, splashing over the group, and a vast dark shape rises from the lake. A rubbery mass of grey flesh glistens in the orb’s light. A gaping maw opens wide and the creature lets loose a piercing shriek. The thunderous sound echoes throughout the cavern, causes the stone under their feet to tremble.
Mathos peers at the massive fleshy creature. “Look at that,” he marvels.
Numerous thick suckered tentacles break the surface of the water.
“Look at that.”
“Would you run like a normal person,” Jake shouts, pointing towards the relative safety of the wide shelf ahead.
“How can you stand to live life like that, Jake? Shrouded in willful ignor–”
“Go!” He pushes the mage forward, just as one of the fat tentacles slaps the stone where the mage stood an instant earlier.
Jake stumbles back into Elaine.
The cleric loses her balance and lets out a yelp as she slips off the ledge into the black water.
“Elaine!” Jake draws his sword and stares down into the water, searching for the spot where the cleric has disappeared from view. The choppy waves stirred up by the huge creature obscure her location.
Another of the thick tentacles comes close to Jake while he scans the water for the cleric. He notices just as it reaches for him, but Scarlet is already there, slashing with one of her blades, cutting deep into the fleshy appendage. The creature lets out another ear-piercing shriek and the injured tentacle curls up and retreats.
Jake slashes at another that comes near. The effectiveness of his swing is diminished by the narrow ledge and the wall at his back, but the squirming tentacle backs off warily.
“Elaine!” he calls again.
Beside him, Scarlet fights off another probing tentacle, slashing and cutting with her knives.
The water explodes in front of them and the cleric appears, gripped tightly around the waist by another of the creature’s thick tentacles. Gasping and coughing, she beats at the powerful creature holding her with a small fist, without effect.
“Elaine!” Jake stands at the water’s edge, sword in hand, trying to figure out how to help. Ahead, Hamfrd has reached the far shore of the lake and settled there on the rock shelf, and now begins stringing up his bow. Mathos is covering the last few steps along the ledge, about to join the big man there.
Elaine gives up her futile bare-handed assault, and fumbles instead for the medallion tucked inside her robe. The creature lifts her high above the surface of the water, begins drawing her in towards its main fleshy bulk and its open waiting mouth. A stink like moist decaying mushrooms assails her nose.
The cleric has her medallion in hand now, and as she mumbles through a quick prayer, she places her empty hand on the tentacle wrapped around her. Where she touches it, a divine light blossoms, and the rubbery flesh begins to steam and hiss. The creature lets out a pained shriek, its grip loosens, and the cleric splashes down into the churning water.
She surfaces an instant later, swimming back towards the ledge.
“I’m okay,” she calls out to Jake and Scarlet. She slaps at the water, motioning ahead towards the shelf where Hamfrd and Mathos are. “Go!”
“Not without you,” calls Jake.
“I’m right behind you,” she gasps, spitting water. “Just go!”
“She said to go, Jake. Come on.” Scarlet steps forward and salutes with one of her knives. “Nice knowing you,” she tells the cleric. Jake frowns at the fierce woman, who shrugs and then sighs heavily and instead stands by ready to help Elaine from the water.
Hamfrd finishes getting his bow strung, and lets loose an arrow which deflects harmlessly off the creature’s thick flesh as if it were rock.
“Almost there,” Jake says, urging the cleric forward.
She’s just about close enough to reach out and grab Jake’s offered hand when something snakes around her left leg, tightens. She is ripped out of the water, lifted dangling upside down into the air.
Jake calls to her, but a pair of angry tentacles converge on him. Back against the rock wall, he slashes a wide arc with his sword.
A third tentacle reaches for Scarlet, feels the bite of her blades, and retreats back to the water. The fierce woman stares up at the young cleric with concern.
Upside down, Elaine cries out as she feels her medallion slip from around her neck. An instant later, she finds it hanging in the air below her head and breathes a sigh of relief. The chain has caught on her ponytail. She grabs the divine pendant, squeezes it tight.
The lake creature jerks Elaine higher into the air, still dangling her by the ankle of her left leg. Searing pain flares as the suckered tentacle stretches and pulls her flesh. She squeezes her eyes shut, and gripping the medallion tight, begins to pray to the Allway. Her sodden robe from belt to hem begins to inch downward due to gravity. A moment later, the bottom half of the robe falls completely, exposing her bare legs and her private underclothes. She squeaks, cheeks warming even as the creature lifts her higher in the air. The wet garment hangs down around her head.
Gritting her teeth, she continues praying.
Taking a determined breath, she brushes aside the hanging hem of her robes with one hand so that she can see, and focuses the medallion towards the island-like bulk of the creature below her. A divine light blooms and shoots forth like a beam straight at the huge creature. It roars in pain and fury, tentacles writhing, jerking Elaine roughly through the air. She holds the medallion tight, keeps the ray of divine light focused on the fleshy bulk of the creature.
Huge waves surge as the enormous beast rolls and twists in the water.
Smoke rises from the hard rubbery body where the divine light touches it, and the acrid smell of it burning begins to fill the cavern. Shrieking in anger and pain, the creature withdraws the tentacles engaging Jake and Scarlet. It releases Elaine, who splashes down into the black water again. The massive body of the beast submerges beneath the churning lake. Bubbles and foam mark the spot where it goes under.
Elaine surfaces a moment later. Coughing out water, she swims to the stone ledge, where Jake and Scarlet are waiting to haul her up onto the rock.
She sits, sputtering on the ground, soaked completely through, her robe back where it belongs and clinging to her shivering frame.
There’s no sign of the creature apart from the disturbed water slapping and splashing against the stone.
* * *
Jake and Elaine are last to join the others on the rock shelf. The Companions have reached the far end of the lake. Hamfrd puts a giant hand on the young cleric’s shoulder. “Well done,” says the big man, grinning.
Mathos is peering out at the settling lake. “That was amazing,” he says.
“Us almost dying?” asks Jake, joining him.
“Not that, Jake. The creature out there.” He puts his fingertips to his temples. “I’m trying to remember exactly what it looked like. For my sketchbook.” He giggles with excitement. “Did you see those tentacles?”
“Oh, we saw them.”
“How many did you count, eight? I think I counted eight. May have been more, but eight or ten makes the most sense from an anatomical perspective. I mean, assuming it’s natural. Ooh, maybe it’s not natural.”
Jake shakes his head. “I was a little too busy to count them.”
“Right,” says Mathos, nodding. “Fair point. Did you see Hamfrd’s arrows just bouncing off its body? And eyes! I didn’t see any eyes. Did you see any eyes? It lives in an underground lake in a pitch black cavern. What would it need eyes for? Light, this is amazing.” The mage prattles on, bubbling with excitement.
A few paces away, Scarlet joins the shivering cleric, standing at her shoulder. Elaine is rubbing her arms through the soaked sleeves of her robe. Scarlet tilts her head in a slight nod towards the cleric. “That was pretty badass,” she tells Elaine.
Elaine waves away the compliment, averts her eyes to the floor. Feels her cheeks coloring. “Oh, it was nothing,” she says, holding down a torrent of giddiness.
“Okay. Forget I said anything.” Scarlet turns to leave.
“Wait!” Elaine reaches out a hand, holds the other woman’s arm. Scarlet stops. “Thank you. Truly. Also, did you mean what you said back there?”
“What did I say?”
“You said it was nice knowing me.”
Scarlet stares at the cleric, eyes narrowing. “Heat of the moment.”
Elaine nods her head, holds her chin up. “Oh. Okay.”
“You’re touching again,” Scarlet reminds her, scowling.
“Sorry,” says Elaine, letting go of the other woman’s arm.
Scarlet leans closer, lowers her voice. “Nice panties, by the way.”
She walks off, leaving the cleric staring after her, cheeks burning.
Hamfrd is unstringing his bow, replacing it across his back. “It sure would’ve been nice to finish off that beast,” the red-haired giant laments. “My boys love hearing all about the terrible monsters we defeat. Papa escaped from the big scary monster doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
“Well, on a positive note,” says Jake, “that monster isn’t somewhere right now telling its little lake monster kids about the group of heroes that it just ate for breakfast.”
“That’s true, I suppose,” says Hamfrd, grinning. He pats Jake on the shoulder with one big hand, chuckles.
“Which is to say, we’re alive,” continues Jake. “And totally awesome heroes. Especially this one,” he says, indicating shivering Elaine with a pointed thumb. The young cleric silently accepts Jake’s praise with a nod and a further blush, although inside she has her arms raised to the sky, screaming in delight.
“Now, first thing, we have to find a way out of this cave,” says Jake. He crosses the flat shelf of rock, leaving Mathos, now speculating on the creature’s reproductive system, standing alone at the lake’s edge. Jake points to an opening in the rock wall, a passage into darkness. “Only one way to go. Let’s hope it leads to an exit.” He glances over at Elaine. The cleric’s teeth are chattering again as she tries to rub heat into her wet limbs. “We should try to find fuel for a fire. Rest up soon if we can.”
The others agree, prepare to advance into the darkness and leave the black lake behind.
Jake calls over his shoulder to the mage. “Mathos, we need your light.”
“Coming, Jake.” He hustles over from the water’s edge. “I’m trying to choose just the right name for our beast.” The glowing orb joins him, hovering over the mage’s shoulder. “Want to hear what I have so far?”
“I sure don’t, Mathos.”
“Fine then, Jake,” says the mage, deflating some. “Don’t expect to have your name appear alongside mine when I submit my notes to the Royal Bestiary Society.”
“That hurts,” Jake tells the mage, bringing a hand to his heart. The swordarm then glances aside at Hamfrd. Not really, he mouths.
The big man’s face splits into another wide grin.
* * *
They move through a series of low-ceilinged chambers, connected by tight passageways, a few barely more than wide cracks in the stone of the cavern. At one point, they are forced to advance on hands and knees through a tight tunnel that threatens to narrow further to impassibility. Hamfrd, at the front of the group, grunts, sharp rocks tearing into his skin, as he muscles his way ahead.
“I have dreams just like this,” says Mathos, behind him, as they crawl through the narrow chute, wincing as stones dig into hands and knees. “Squeezing my way through a tight dark channel, until eventually I’m expelled into this bright white light that totally engulfs me. Actually, it’s less a dream and more a memory of my birth. I’m dreaming, yet I’m remembering being born. How amazing is that?”
“So amazing, Mathos,” says Jake, crawling along behind Scarlet. “Do you dream of being a baby often?”
“Oh, all the time,” Mathos replies eagerly. “Doesn’t everyone? For instance, I often have this one particular dream where I’m lying atop a soft bed, and my entire body is being wrapped in long strips of cloth, the softest cloth you can imagine. Binding me tighter and tighter until I feel I can hardly breathe. And yet, instead of being afraid I just feel completely safe and utterly at peace, you know? As if I’m being swaddled like a babe.”
“Jake,” growls Scarlet, as they continue to crawl forward in the confined space, “can you reach one of my knives and kill me with it, please?”
Elaine snorts from the rear of the group, and Hamfrd’s big laugh fills the tight space from the front.
* * *
Eventually they emerge into a large open cavern, where they are able to stand and stretch, their voices and footsteps echoing out into the darkness beyond the reach of Mathos’s glowing orb. The floating light reveals uneven walls of protruding outcroppings, a sloping ceiling adorned with razor-like stalactites and a floor littered with stone formations and ancient rockfalls, which create shadowed corners and pockets of darkness throughout the chamber.
Thankful to be free of the claustrophobic tunnel, the five companions spread out to explore the room. Mathos sends his orb up near the ceiling where its casts its light over the gloom of the cavern, offering only a suggestion of what lay in the darkest corners.
Jake moves ahead slowly, hand scraping along the wall to his left, peering into the darkness. Soon, he’s at the very edge of the orb’s glow, taking careful steps into blackness. His foot knocks something solid aside; he can just about see it roll a short distance away, his eyes following it more by the sound it makes. Probably just a big stone, he thinks. But a step later, his other foot is blocked by something heavier than a single rock. He crouches down, peers into the shadows blanketing the floor. Eventually, he can discern the outline of the object on the ground. It’s a familiar shape.
“I found something,” he calls to the others. “Mathos, more light over here.”
The mage joins him, the orb floating along with him overhead. The others gather around.
“What did you find?” Mathos asks. “Something cool, I’ll bet.”
“Someone,” Jake clarifies, moving aside so the others can see the skeleton he’s discovered. It’s lying chest down, limbs twisted awkwardly beneath the torso, still wearing the remnants of mail armor over its decaying clothes. A sword glints in the orb’s light nearby. The skeleton is headless, but the skull is quickly found a pace back — what Jake mistook a moment earlier as only a heavy, round rock.
“Another here,” calls Hamfrd, a few paces away.
The group moves to inspect this second skeleton. This one is face up, the skull cracked but still lying with the remains. One of the legs is twisted at a terrible angle, the larger bone quite clearly snapped. Another sword lies beside the remains, as well as an iron shield.
“Who are they?” Elaine whispers, hands instinctively clutching the medallion of the Allway around her neck.
“Here, look,” says Hamfrd, pointing. A crest is still visible — two crossed hammers drawn on a shield-shaped field — emblazoned on the iron shield.
“Is that a shield drawn onto the real shield?” asks Jake.
“Hammer and Shield Guild!” Mathos says, pointing at the crest. “Jake, it’s the Hammer and Shield Guild. We found them. Oh, what a day! First, the tomb of the Sun King, then an encounter with the giant subterranean typhlosquid — that’s what I’m calling the creature in the lake — and now this: the location of the missing Hammer and Shield Guild! Mystery solved!”
“First,” Jake says to the mage, “giant typhlo-whatever squid, we’re not calling it that.” He expands his gaze to the others. “Second, do you realize what this means? The Hammer and Shield Guild obviously didn’t come through the tomb to get here. The throne was covering the entrance to the secret passage. These two must have found a different way to get in here. That means there’s a way for us to get out.” He turns to Elaine, who is kneeling, her head bowed and her eyes closed and one hand resting on the skeletal remains; he slaps the cleric on the shoulder. She blinks her eyes open, frowns. Glances up. “And third,” Jake says, grinning wide, “Hammer and Shield Guild. Still a terrible name.”
The young cleric shakes her head, returns her attention to the remains.
The skeleton and its nearby companion lie close together on the ground of the dark cavern, holding tight their secrets in the eternal silence of death.